Athletic Scholarships and Financial Abuse

“College athletes are living the dream. They get to go to the best schools, play a sport they love, and never actually attend classes. All for free.”

Oh boy, if I had a dime for every time I heard that line as a college athlete, I might be able to reimburse the NCAA for the money it payed lobbying to Congress last year.  

But contrary to popular belief, most college athletes aren’t living a dream–they’re living in poverty, and their only means of financial stability lies in their athletic scholarships. This is problematic, because athletic scholarships are renewable, meaning that they expire at the end of every year, and their consistency is never guaranteed. For example, an athlete earning a 50% scholarship her freshman year might earn 30% her sophomore year if her coach decides to cut her scholarship. There are no NCAA bylaws that regulate the fluidity of athletic funding.

The NCAA also does not ban coaches from revoking athletic scholarships, and coaches can pull a scholarship for virtually any reason. So college coaches can use their athletes’ financial instability to make them overwork themselves and train through injuries or risk losing their scholarship (more on that later). This is a form of economic abuse, in which a person in power controls another’s access to financial resources within the confines of a relationship. For reference, these practices are present in 99% of domestic violence cases.

Athletic scholarships are about control, and the nature of athletic funding creates massive power gaps between coaches and athletes. In spite of the NCAA’s insistence that athletic scholarships can’t be revoked due to injuries and other extraneous circumstances, no formal policy exists that specifically prohibits coaches from doing so. And that gives coaches leverage over their rosters of 18-22-year-old financially illiterate/unstable adults.

Several prominent case studies of athletic abuse involve scholarship threats. At the University of Maryland, DJ Durkin’s staff called football players “thieves” if they weren’t earning their scholarships (a.k.a. pushing themselves to their absolute limits in an abusive training room culture). At the University of Nebraska and Rutgers University, head softball coaches Rhonda Revelle and Kristen Butler, respectively, both used scholarship threats to “encourage” (coerce) their athletes to train through injuries. All three of these coaches are still employed.

It’s easy for coaches to get away with coercing their athletes: there are no rules in the NCAA’s Division 1 Manual that prohibit coach abuse, and the renewable nature of athletic scholarships encourages this kind of behavior. Coaches are allowed, not required, to offer four-year scholarship deals, but why would they do that? Coaches would have no means of controlling their athletes if athletic funding was guaranteed. So financial abuse abounds in the NCAA because college athletes have no financial stability under the current structure.

If this sounds hypocritical, that’s because it is. Especially considering that Michigan State University just signed its football program’s newest head coach, Mel Tucker, to a six-year, $14.75 million contract. If a coach (who comes to MSU boasting a 5-7 record during his brief tenure at the University of Colorado) can guarantee multiyear, multimillion dollar funding, so should the athletes who employ him.   


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